If you’re like many horse owners and trainers, your feed room may resemble a sizeable store display of supplements. As a matter of fact, the variety of supplements we feed our horses has become so chaotic that businesses are flourishing that prepackage daily doses of your supplements and ship them to your door (see July 2002). These services are nearly mandatory in some busy boarding barns because of the time and labor associated with dishing out so many “extras” at feeding time.
But wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of feeding six different supplements, you could cut the number in half or even find one product that covers all the bases’ Of course, many manufacturers claim to have products that do just that — or even claim to be a “complete” supplement. Is it possible’
Maybe. Good overall health, strong immune defenses, good hooves and a healthy coat are all tied to solid nutrition. It’s no coincidence that the most effective hoof supplements cover the major common deficiencies in equine diets. Building healthy tissues, both inside and out, begins with supplying the horse’s body all the raw materials it needs.
Unless there is an underlying disease or environmental factor when a problem develops with the skin, coat, hooves or an internal system, it often means the diet isn’t providing a sufficient amount of one or more nutrients. This is why a horse on a diet that was designed to provide all the protein, essential fats, vitamins and minerals he needs rarely has these problems.
Nutritional supplements don’t work like drugs. They won’t help unless the horse’s nutritional needs aren’t being met. For example, biotin won’t cure problem hooves unless that horse has a biotin deficiency, and providing high amounts of it to a horse already getting his optimal amount won’t give him “super” strong hooves.
However, the fact that so many horses have these types of problems is evidence that many horses don’t get their optimum nutritional needs. You’d think a healthy adult horse in good weight and getting clean, good-quality hay and grain was having his nutritional needs met, but it’s not necessarily so.
Part of the problem is that horses typically have a limited diet, as in one type of hay and one type of grain. If these two feeds don’t supply everything the horse needs in the right amounts, he’s simply out of luck. A domestic horse can’t make up for one day’s shortfalls by eating a different diet the next day, the way wild horses grazing over varying lands do — or even the way humans do.
What Should You Do’
Let’s say your horse has problems that likely have a nutritional component, say a dull, bleached coat and poor hoof quality. You check our chart and note that the common dietary deficiencies for these problems are zinc, sulfur-containing amino acids, vitamin C, biotin and copper. You also note that essential fatty acids, like those in flaxseed, may help.
Your options are basically to buy separate supplements containing each of these nutrients, buy a supplement that claims to address both problems, or step back and take a hard look at the basic diet to correct what actually needs to be fixed.
The last approach is always the best, of course, as it saves you money and avoids giving the horse ingredients he doesn’t need. It also ensures you won’t inadvertently make the problem worse by supplementing the horse with too much of one or more ingredients and creating or exacerbating imbalances.
There are two basic ways to try to identify nutritional problems. One is by looking at the horse and doing blood tests, urine tests, and/or hair analysis and the other is by looking at the diet and comparing its ingredients to optimal levels.
Blood tests are the least reliable for most nutrients, so let’s throw that idea out. Urine’s a little better, but it’s not practical. Hair analysis gives you an idea about problems six months ago but doesn’t differentiate between deficiencies and diseases/conditions that may have caused an increased demand for some nutrients.
The best place really is a dietary analysis. Start by getting your hay analyzed (see December 2002) so that you know what it provides and give this information, plus analysis information for all grains and supplements, to your veterinarian or a nutrition consultant in order for them to map out a balanced, optimal diet for your horse and his workload. You can then target the actual ingredients your horse needs and just supplement that. Or you can go the easy route and look to the manufacturers for help.
Manufacturers basically try to make all this easier for you by essentially by playing the odds. Supplements that consistently get good results don’t have any magic ingredients or necessarily any high-tech forms of nutrients. What they have is a formula that covers the bases for the most common deficiencies that can be related to the problem they are targeting.
Farrier’s Formula from Life Data Labs is a good example. The ingredients hit the commonly encountered deficiencies when horses have bad feet. Since the hoof is made up of the same general tissue types as the skin and coat, it’s no surprise that horses with hoof problems may well have skin/coat quality issues as well, and these will improve at the same time.
Not surprisingly, most of the products we’ve selected in this multipurpose/combo supplement category include hoof and skin problems in their claims. It makes sense to use only one supplement for these problems. If you’re currently using two separate supplements for feet and coat/skin, check the labels. You may be surprised how similar they are.
The same system holds for other problems you may be trying to tackle with a combo supplement. You need to know what your horse lacks in his diet and how much you need to feed of a given nutrient to make up the difference. You then take those numbers and compare them to what the product’s label claims to include.
Pay close attention to actual ingredient levels on the labels. Just because the ingredient is included in the product doesn’t mean it contains enough of the ingredient to make a difference to your horse.
This is especially true with nutraceuticals for arthritis, such as glucosamine and chondroitins. These ingredients are pricey, and the manufacturer may scrimp a bit on how much is included. Active horses will need 5,000 to 10,000 mg/day of maintenance glucosamine to actually feel a solid effect. He’ll need higher doses during the loading period — the initial feeding of the product — to build the levels before the ingredient can actually begin to work.
Be careful, too, of claims of exceptionally high levels of ingredients. Too much isn’t a good thing either, and it can be a waste of money. Your horse’s body will just get rid of any excess beyond wh at it needs.
For example, some supplement manufacturers claim to contain 50 mg of biotin. This might not be too much for a horse to absorb, but it could be wasted, since high levels in the blood are likely to be excreted in the urine. About 20 mg biotin per day seems right for maximum benefits.
There’s nothing wrong with combination supplements, but they’re not necessarily your automatic best bet. Start with a dietary analysis and determine any deficiencies, then go to product labels and find the one that best matches your horse’s needs. For most horses, the best multipurpose supplement is likely a basic vitamin-and-mineral supplement.
However, we know reality dictates that if your horse is battling hoof/skin problems and arthritis, you really just want to find something that would combat both problems, simplifying feeding and saving money. Plus, for many horse owners, you’re already feeding a fortified, balanced grain and the best hay you can find in your area. The important thing to remember when you choose a multi-purpose supplement is to be certain it contains enough of the ingredients in them to truly make a difference.
For seniors with joints responsive to maintenance doses, Legacy is hard to beat at under $1/day.
For highly stressed performance horses, we’d go with Pro V.M.’s concentrations and ingredients.
Mega-Dose and Farrier’s Formula are excellent if you don’t need arthritis nutraceuticals. The nod there for favorite goes to Farrier’s Formula, but Mega-Dose is the Best Buy.
For a supplement that includes joint nutraceuticals, we like Glanzen-GL over Competitor’s Edge due to its flaxseed and price, making it our top choice overall and Best Buy.